The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved a proposal by Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. to remove sociology as one of the core courses available to Florida college students. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Last fall, with little explanation, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. proposed removing sociology from the menu of courses university students can take to meet graduation requirements. On Wednesday, he spoke more clearly, suggesting that sociology studies could veer into “identity politics or theories,” in violation of a new state law.

“Students should be focused on learning the truth about our country instead of being radicalized by woke ideology in our college classrooms,” Diaz said in comments to the State Board of Education.

A short time later, the board unanimously approved two rules that will apply to Florida’s 28 state colleges. One prohibits spending on diversity efforts. The other removes sociology as an option to fulfill state requirements for what are known as the “general education” or “core” courses that all students must take.

The sociology option will be replaced with an introductory course about American history prior to 1877.

Florida College System Chancellor Kathy Hebda said the move will not change students’ ability to take sociology courses if they choose. Colleges can even recommend to include it in their general education offerings outside of the state requirements, she said.

The rule was needed so the state can carry out a new law, Senate Bill 266, which took effect last year. The law says core courses should “provide broad foundational knowledge” and not include “unproven, speculative, or exploratory content.”

It requires that core courses “whenever applicable, provide instruction on the historical background and philosophical foundation of Western civilization and this nation’s historical documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, and the Federalist Papers.”

A faculty committee reviewed general education offerings and developed a list based on the law.

Diaz first proposed removing sociology as a core course in November, when a similar set of rules was being discussed by the Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s 12-school university system. On Wednesday, as the State Board considered the rule for colleges, he offered more details.

“I think the statute is clear that, within the general education core code, courses may not distort significant historical events or include curriculum that teaches identity politics or theories,” Diaz said. “And I think when you go into the sociology course, you’re talking about theories, and that’s an option that students have to explore those theories in a nongeneral education course.”

The Board of Governors next week is expected to take a final vote on the same measure as it pertains to universities. Ten sociology department heads have written to the State University System, warning officials against removing the sociology option. They said that entrance exams in other fields, including medicine and law, have sociology elements on tests and that the courses have been “an integral part of higher education for nearly two centuries.”

The Board of Governors will also vote on the other new rule the State Board approved Wednesday. It seeks to prohibit state or federal funds from being spent on diversity programs or activities, “promoting or engaging in political or social activism.”

In their rules, the State Board and the Board of Governors focus on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, often referred to as “DEI.” They define them as “any program, campus activity or policy” that classifies people by race, color, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation and “promotes differential or preferential treatment” based on those classifications.

They define political and social activism as actions that would “affect or prevent change in government policy based on social issues.” And social issues are defined as issues that would “polarize or divide society along political, ideological, religious or moral beliefs.”

In his opening comments Wednesday before the State Board, Diaz echoed Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying the new law and rules are ending “state-sponsored discrimination” in Florida.

“There’s a great clarity in this rule,” Hebda said.

The rule makes exceptions for spending by student organizations, or anything funded by student fees. It also exempts spending on access programs for military veterans, Pell Grant recipients, first-generation college students, transfer students, students from low-income families and students with disabilities. Spending is also permitted to comply “with any other state or federal law.”

The Board of Governors meets to discuss the university version of the rule next Wednesday.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.